Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Eva Menasse: Quasikristalle

Last night saw the launch of the Berlin-based Austrian author Eva Menasse's third book of fiction, following the novel Vienna (trans. Anthea Bell) and the short stories Lässliche Todsünden. The new novel is called Quasikristalle, named for a type of crystals that make up an orderly pattern of different shapes and forms, although that pattern never repeats itself exactly. Which is kind of what the book does too.

Menasse tells the story of a woman's life from thirteen different perspectives, taking her from childhood to old age. Yes, she told us last night, she was very influenced by Sherwood Anderson, but no, she didn't have specific models for the novel. I won't give you the full summary because that would take up rather a lot of space. Suffice to say that we see the Austrian protagonist Xane Molin through the eyes of childhood and adult friends, would-be lovers, professional contacts, children and step-children, her father, her doctor, her landlord, a stranger - and in the middle, herself. The observers reveal as much about themselves as they do about Xane, if not more. And each chapter encapsulates a story of its own.

There are stand-out parts, however. For me, the second chapter was what won me over to the book - and how. A historian focuses his gaze on Xane during a tour around Auschwitz, narrated as almost all the others from an over-the-shoulder perspective in the third person. Everything goes wrong on the tour, including his advances to the much younger woman. His indirect voice is wonderfully cynical, addressing the ways in which we confront the Holocaust and veering grotesquely between the horror of the concentration camp and his flirtation. Another of my favourites comes at the end, told by Xane's now adult son. A warm and affectionate epistolary chapter that leaves us with hope for the future.

The structure is neatly hinged around three central chapters set in the middle of Xane's life, a time of self-doubt and near-crisis. Now married to an academic and relocated to Berlin, she feels drawn to a much older man and begins to question her decisions in life. We see a single incident from the man, Nelson's perspective, then from her own and then through the eyes of her rebellious step-daughter. Menasse read from the sole first-person chapter last night, saying she'd chosen it because it's quite funny. It is - but then again it isn't. Deep black humour features heavily in the novel, and here Xane thinks about what happens to women as we get older. The audience started off laughing together and gradually a gender divide opened up, with the women's lips getting more and more pursed and brows getting more and more furrowed. We were working on our own demise, engraving our wrinkles even deeper. A very nice man next to me carried on laughing but I was unable to observe what the suddenly quiet women were doing because I was feeling far too dejected about the fate that awaits me.

After that point the novel moves into the future, where Menasse addresses social questions such as overpopulation and aging, yet without ever getting so specific as to be full-out science fiction. As a whole, it uses a wide range of styles to suit the respective characters, showcasing Menasse's talent as a writer. She raises a whole battery of issues too, from domestic violence to Austria's role under fascism to reproduction rights to the meaning of friendship. And she seems to understand human nature and capture it on the page very well.

I was going to tell you what I thought Xane was like but the author said she didn't know herself. I'm sceptical about that actually, because I think even the oblique views we get of her reveal something about her, which the writer must have been aware of. But then people say things at readings and mean something other than what comes across. Or I understand something other than what they mean. So in fact, let me tell you that I enjoyed the novel very much as a portrait of a strong woman who clings to her naivety against all odds. I admired her a great deal, actually. And let me add that the novel would work very well in English. 

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